Early in 2008, workers at a government-owned textile factory in the Egyptian mill town of El-Mahalla el-Kubra announced that they were going on strike on the first Sunday in April to protest high food prices and low wages. They caught the attention of a group of tech-savvy young people an hour’s drive to the south in the capital city of Cairo, who started a Facebook group to organize protests and strikes on April 6 throughout Egypt in solidarity with the mill workers. To their shock, the page quickly acquired some 70,000 followers.
But what worked so smoothly online proved much more difficult on the street. Police occupied the factory in Mahalla and headed off the strike. The demonstrations there turned violent: Protesters set fire to buildings, and police started shooting, killing at least two people. The solidarity protests around Egypt, meanwhile, fizzled out, in most places blocked by police. The Facebook organizers had never agreed on tactics, whether Egyptians should stay home or fill the streets in protest. People knew they wanted to do something. But no one had a clear idea of what that something was.
The botched April 6 protests, the leaders realized in their aftermath, had been an object lesson in the limits of social networking as a tool of democratic revolution. Facebook could bring together tens of thousands of sympathizers online, but it couldn’t organize them once they logged off. It was a useful communication tool to call people to — well, to what? The April 6 leaders did not know the answer to this question. So they decided to learn from others who did. In the summer of 2009, Mohamed Adel, a 20-year-old blogger and April 6 activist, went to Belgrade, Serbia.
The Serbian capital is home to the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, an organization run by young Serbs who had cut their teeth in the late 1990s student uprising against Slobodan Milosevic. After ousting him, they embarked on the ambitious project of figuring out how to translate their success to other countries. To the world’s autocrats, they are sworn enemies — both Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko have condemned them by name. (“They think we are bringing a revolution in our suitcase,” one of CANVAS’s leaders told me.) But to a young generation of democracy activists from Harare to Rangoon to Minsk to Tehran, the young Serbs are heroes. They have worked with democracy advocates from more than 50 countries. They have advised groups of young people on how to take on some of the worst governments in the world — and in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria-occupied Lebanon, the Maldives, and now Egypt, those young people won.
In Belgrade, Adel took a week-long course in the strategies of nonviolent revolution. He learned how to organize people — not on a computer, but in the streets. And most importantly, he learned how to train others. He went back to Egypt and began to teach. The April 6 Youth Movement, along with a similar group called Kefaya, became the most important organizers of the 18-day peaceful uprising that culminated in President Hosni Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11. “The April 6 Movement and Kifaya are the groups that have led the charge in actually getting protesters organized and onto the streets,” a Feb. 3 report from the geopolitical analysis group Stratfor said. The tactics were straight out of CANVAS’s training curriculum. “I got trained in how to conduct peaceful demonstrations, how to avoid violence, and how to face violence from the security forces … and also how to organize to get people on the streets,” Adel said of his experience with the Serbs, in an interview with Al Jazeera English on Feb. 9. “We were quite amazed they did so much with so little,” Srdja Popovic, one of CANVAS’s leaders, told me.